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HRN Original Blog:
Toasting with Andrew Champagne

Coming Home

 
There’s a series of scenes in the pilot episode of “The West Wing” where White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry yells, to anyone who will listen, that The New York Times crossword puzzle has misspelled Libyan leader Moammar Gaddhafi’s last name. Ultimately, his tirade leads to him being hung up on by the Times in what is undoubtedly a repeat occurrence.

Like Leo (one of my favorite fictional characters in any form of media), I tend to get worked up about issues of all shapes and sizes in my chosen field. In my case, it’s horse racing, a sport I’ve loved since I was old enough to read a copy of the Daily Racing Form and am now fortunate enough to work in on a daily basis. I have a very particular viewpoint on the way the sport should be run by powers-that-be, perceived by the general public, and marketed to fans and those who want to know more about it.

I believe tracks should be cathedrals. I believe the ghosts of thoroughbreds past should be celebrated as we analyze the present and hope for a successful future. I believe it shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg to get inside one of these tracks and see the majestic thoroughbreds that, as Ron McAnally once put it, give their lives for our entertainment. I believe that those horses should be treated with the utmost respect by owners, trainers, jockeys, and racing officials at all times, with the pursuit of the almighty dollar taking a back seat.

This is overly optimistic. It’s flowery, it’s selective, and the naysayers of the racing world will likely chuckle at the notion that such a utopia can ever exist. But unlike many in the business, people who got their starts at tracks that have seen better days or closed up shop completely, I had the pleasure of growing up at one of these cathedrals, a venue that oozes history, class, and a gravitas that is unmatched by many professional venues across the sports world.

I was a young fan, a slightly older fan, and a turf writer at Saratoga Race Course for most of my first 24-plus years on this planet. When I left it last September, it was after the place and its inhabitants tested me, shook me, restored my faith in myself, and inspired me to start a new journey, one that took me across the country to another cathedral, Santa Anita Park.

Last July, I came to the Spa a broken man, only I couldn’t tell anyone about it. By September, I’d gathered myself enough to reevaluate my priorities and decide that I wanted more than what I had. Now, as the summer of 2014 and the 151st summer meet in upstate New York rolls on, I’m taking a week off, going back to Saratoga, and seeing things in an entirely new light.

This isn’t just a horse racing story. It’s my story, a story that features love, loss, triumph, and tragedy. Most of all, it’s a story about how an establishment that’s survived world wars, inept management, a remote location, and a sport that attracts bad press at what seems to be a record clip has a captivating mystique, one that stands the test of time.

                                    ****************

I was a turf writer at The Saratogian, a small daily newspaper in Saratoga Springs, for about a year and a half, encompassing the 2012 and 2013 meets at the Spa. Things were great for me in 2012. I’d just gotten married, and after hitting a late Pick Four on Travers Saturday to the tune of $500 while working a ridiculous amount of overtime, it wasn’t just an enjoyable summer, but a profitable one as well.

What a difference a year made. In July of 2013, my marriage ended, amicably but abruptly, and I certainly wasn’t in any hurry to advertise that fact. This came two and a half weeks before track season, and my mindset quickly became one of, “Drown yourself in work, come up for air after Labor Day, and go from there.”

My first trip to the track that summer was for the unveiling of the Saratoga Walk of Fame. After the ceremony, I snuck into the track and waltzed up the ancient steps to the Joe Hirsch Press Box. Surprisingly (to me), the door was open, and I walked through the empty press box and up more rickety steps to the best view in all of sports, looking out on the track from atop the box’s roof.

There was one chair on the deck, and I sat down for what felt like an eternity (but was really only about 20 minutes). The track where Man O’ War got beat, where Secretariat lost to Onion, where You outdueled Carson Hollow in the photo finish that didn’t deserve a loser, was completely quiet, something I had never seen or felt in my lifetime.

To this day, I firmly believe that a silent conversation was held that afternoon. It was as if I was opening myself up to the gods of Saratoga, admitting I needed some sort of divine intervention. Whether I knew it or not at the time, Saratoga would deliver just that.

                                      ***************

The characters in the Saratoga press box couldn’t have been written by a group of Hollywood screenwriters. Local and national reporters, from New York and Connecticut to Kentucky and Florida, convened in the old room for six weeks. The mix of attitudes in the press box was just as diverse as the origins of the reporters. On any given day, enthusiasm would meet misery, excitement would confront boredom, and those carrying youthful exuberance would come face-to-face with those treating the meet as a slow death march.

The weeks leading up to the 2013 meeting were tumultuous at best. Chris Kay had just taken over as the CEO of the New York Racing Association after a takeover of that association by the state government, and plans were underway for an anniversary of the track’s 150th year of existence. Add in promises of 12-hour days and multiple print and digital responsibilities for each reporter in the press box, and you have a recipe for plenty of stress and anxiety, one that was palpable when I walked in every morning.

Unlike some others, I welcomed the challenges with open arms. The more I was in the press box, I reasoned, the less I’d be home moping about my personal situation. Plus, whether those reporters knew it or not (and they will once they read this), I learned plenty from them just by sharing the same working environment.

There was Paul Moran, whose biting commentaries spared no expense in holding wrongdoers accountable for their actions. There was Tom Amello, a basketball coach-turned-handicapper who once relied on studying water trucks to pick winners in certain races. There were Mike Veitch and Jeff Scott, two freelancers from my paper who have more horse racing knowledge in their respective pinky fingers than I probably have in my brain. Others, like Ed McNamara of Newsday, Jerry Bossert of The New York Daily News, Mike MacAdam of The Daily Gazette, longtime handicapper John Pricci, and the Clancy brothers of The Saratoga Special had countless chances to tell me (by comparison, a motor-mouthed kid) to shut up and never did. I’ll always be grateful to them for that, and I’ll also always appreciate the bonds I formed with the younger contingent of reporters. David Johnson, Joe Bianchino, Ryan Martin, Joe Migliore, Jessica Tugwell, Matt Pappis, and others made me realize I’m not the only one under the age of 30 with an interest in this sport, and that’s a powerful thing.

Make no mistake, in the summer of 2013, there was plenty of time to learn from one another. NYRA carded an average of more than 10 races per day, and often ran 11 on Thursdays, of all days. When you’re stuck in an old press box with downtime between races, you strike up conversations, and the back-and-forth kept me sane as I looked for material to get me through each day.

What helped just as much were the high-profile horses who strutted their stuff each day that summer. Princess of Sylmar won two Grade 1 races. Wise Dan carried 129 pounds to victory in the Fourstardave, and Will Take Charge won a thrilling renewal of the Travers before surviving a bizarre buzzer claim by losing trainer Eric Guillot.

Still, the subplots were ominous. The sharks were circling around Chris Kay, whose presence was felt in continual celebrations and speeches from the winner’s circle. Saratoga’s 150th anniversary was in full swing, and the self-congratulatory post-race events got old in a hurry.


Unbeknownst to me, Paul was deathly ill. He was suffering from cancer, yet every day, he came to the track, did his job, and participated in his fair share of camaraderie. He passed away later that year, and it made me appreciate everything he brought to the table that much more.

My paper gave me Mondays off, probably because our payroll department would have blown a gasket had I worked any more overtime than I did. But make no mistake, I saw almost every one of that meet’s 420 races, and in doing so, it helped me put myself back together.

I learned that, when you lose a bet at the track, it hurts, but there are always worse places to be. For example, I was enraged one day when I was nosed out of a $170 Pick Four. I stormed out of the track as casually as I could under the circumstances and walked to my car, only to catch a glimpse of the wonderful, eccentric, and lovable Tom Durkin smiling broadly while on his Vespa scooter. The sight of the sometimes-nutty announcer weaving through traffic made me crack a smile, and all of a sudden, it was much easier to put everything in perspective.

I learned that it’s noticed when people do little things out of respect. When living Hall of Famers were called to the front of the pavilion at the 2013 induction ceremony, many shook the hand of the person next to them. Not jockey Edgar Prado, though, who insisted on shaking the hand of EVERY Hall of Famer in attendance. It was a first-class move by a first-class person.

I learned that you can never take yourself too seriously, as evidenced by the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund’s annual Jockey Karaoke Night. One has not lived until hearing Mike Luzzi and David Cohen stumble through Florida-Georgia Line’s “Cruise” without knowing ANY of the words.

I learned that you can overcome adversity. Ed Fountaine was one of three reporters let go by The New York Post in a classless elimination of the racing section the day before the 2013 Belmont Stakes. He showed up one afternoon in a Hawaiian shirt looking happier than I’d ever seen him, with not a bad word to say about anyone.

Most importantly, I learned that a bad day at the track is better than a good day almost anywhere else. Not just because of the gambling, or the people, but because of the stories an environment like Saratoga can produce, both on-track and off.

And oh, those stories were priceless. I could expound about the time where two interns were nearly kicked off the press box roof by a New York Racing Association rent-a-cop for lacking appropriate connections while interning for, you guessed it, the New York Racing Association. I could spin a yarn about the time an unknowing woman made a negative comment about The Saratogian’s sports section with me sitting five feet away with a one-liner at the ready. I could puff out my chest and recall my seven-winner day in The Saratogian’s handicapping contest, all the while ignoring the final results (OK, I was tied for the lead with eight races to go but didn’t finish the job).

Instead, the story that resonates with me to this day revolves around a press box tradition. Much-beloved track announcer Tom Durkin’s trademark as a horde of thoroughbreds bounds into the stretch is the phrase, “as the field…(dramatic pause)…TURNS FOR HOME!” Every once in a while, the press box contingent times it perfectly with one another in a bit of unspoken synergy, and on one particular afternoon, all the stars aligned, as all the beat writers, bloggers, tweeters, and stalwarts could sense that dramatic pause coming.

It came, and after the press box exploded with a resounding, “TURNS FOR HOME!,” a mix of laughter and applause swept through the room. For a moment, at least, the gripes about too much racing and a thoroughbred novice running NYRA went away, as did the thoughts of my divorce and what it would do to me once the meet ended.

Fortunately, horse racing would save me once again.

                                      ***************

The day after Labor Day, I took a train to New York City for a meeting. It was with the Vice President of Digital Media and Technology at HRTV, and the meeting could not have gone better. A few weeks later, I was flown to Southern California, and soon after that, a job offer came that would put me at The Great Race Place on a daily basis.

It’s a dream job, and in the past 10 months or so, I’ve been able to do plenty of things I’m very proud of. I traveled to two legs of racing’s Triple Crown, worked an on-air shift at Belmont Park, was on-site at the 2013 Breeders’ Cup, and in my spare time, I’ve blogged about the demise of Betfair Hollywood Park, the rise of Los Alamitos, and a little horse named California Chrome who took the sport on one wild ride.

I’m living a dream right now, and not a day goes by where I don’t think of myself as very, VERY fortunate. I’m a walking, talking counter-argument to those who insist that only negative stories come out of this sport. It saved me when I needed saving, and it gave me a fresh start while allowing me to leave my problems in my rear view mirror.

                                      ***************

As I prepare to go back to Saratoga, I’m excited, but I’m also resigned to the fact that several changes have impacted the press box I called home for two summers. Paul Moran is gone. Jerry Bossert lost his job before the meet. Several seats were removed as NYRA built a Spanish announcer’s table, and a week into the racing season, my old paper axed its entire photography department. There’s even a sense of gloom surrounding Tom Durkin, who announced his retirement earlier this year and will end his career later this month at The Spa.

Regardless of how outside sources impact it, though, it’s still Saratoga Race Course. It’s still the gold standard for racing, still the place I spent so many summer days at, and still the place that embraced me for who I was at a time when I desperately needed it.

Most of all, it’s still home. That’s why, almost a year after I left the Spa determined to pick myself up and dust myself off, I’m heading back there for a week. From August 13th through August 16th, I’ll be writing, tweeting, taking pictures, and soaking in as much of Saratoga as humanly possible. I hope you’ll follow along and have as much fun reading the blog as I do putting my posts together.

It isn’t quite LeBron James’s essay on returning to Cleveland, but let me make this much perfectly clear: When I got to Saratoga last July, I was in a very dark place, and not many people knew it. That track, and the people I encountered on a daily basis, from writers and photographers to security guards and Pedro the Press Box Master Chef, encouraged me to be myself, and that wound up being the greatest gift I could’ve asked for at that time.

In some ways, I’m still the same motor-mouthed kid that will undoubtedly drive several of my press box contemporaries up a proverbial wall. However, I’m also happier, healthier, and nowhere near as worn down by life, and when the opportunity came to fly home for a week, see my family, and enjoy a few days at the track, I knew I couldn’t pass that up.

I’m coming home, and I couldn’t be happier.

 

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Meet Andrew Champagne

 

A native of upstate New York and a graduate of Ithaca College, Andrew Champagne fell in love with horse racing at a very early age on summer trips to Saratoga. His turf writing credits include time spent as a sportswriter, weekly columnist, and handicapper at The Saratogian, a summer working for The Saratoga Special, and "field research" at OTB facilities in Saratoga Springs and his hometown of Kingston. He also spent two years in the athletic communications office at Siena College, and interned with NBC Olympics at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.


Andrew moved to Pasadena, Calif., in October of 2013, and now serves as an Associate Producer in HRTV's Digital Media department and Horse Racing Nation's Southern California writer. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewChampagne, and email him at andrewdchampagne@gmail.com.